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Crossing the Lines

Ford Jr. poaches on the GOP’s turf, while Sundquist heads in the other direction.

by Jackson Baker

s this a pre-millennial phenomenon or what? Increasingly, influential public figures are departing their parties’ fixed ideological positions and grazing for new ideas over on the other side of the partisan battle lines.

Two recent examples, each happening in a different direction:

Left to Right: For the few hundred mainly moderate-to-conservative Memphians on hand last week at a Downtown Rotary Club luncheon, it was almost a throwback to the heady days of the Contract With America, circa 1995.

Up there was a fresh-pressed yuppie-looking congressman talking up the flat tax, charter schools, pay-as-you-go economics, and conditional tax cuts. He advocated a lifting of the ban on campaign donations from corporations, bragged on former congressman Bob Livingston, a Louisiana Republican who “would have been one heck of a Speaker” had he not resigned after allegations of sexual misconduct, and criticized the Clinton administration for the weakness of its foreign policy.

What spawn of Newt Gingrich might this have been?

Well, truth to tell, it wasn’t like that. This was Harold Ford Jr., the second-term 9th District Democratic congressman from Memphis, successor in the House of Representatives to his father and namesake, Harold Ford Sr., who could always be found among the ranks of liberal urban Democrats.

The son and heir — perhaps looking to a statewide race earlier than almost anyone expected, or maybe just taking pains to build his name throughout Tennessee — has been in East Tennessee of late and was in Nashville on Monday, preaching much the same gospel as he brought to the Memphis Rotarians on Tuesday, a message of moderation that, a few scant months ago, caused him to be written about in The New York Times Magazine and celebrated on its cover as a “black centrist.”

“I’m a ‘New Democrat.’ I like to spend money, but we ought to be able to pay the bills at the end of the day, and we ought to hold people accountable,” said Rep. Ford at Rotary.

And: “Some of us moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans are trying to find ways to heal and to bridge that chasm and to close that gap [between the parties].”

And (quoting John Maynard Keynes): “The difficulty lies not in developing new ideas but in escaping the old ones. We have a lot of old ideas to escape from.”

Some of those “old ideas” are those very dear to most Democrats — the sacrosanctness of the public schools, for example, and the clear distinction between them — as objects of governmental largesse — and private educational institutions. But quoth Ford Jr.:

“We need to look at alternative ways to teach kids. I’ve taken some hits even from friends of mine, locally. But the only loyalty I have, the only chips I have in the game are our children. If charter schools teach them, let’s go with charter schools. If public schools teach them, let’s go with public schools. If private schools can do it, go with private schools. We’ve got to move beyond the rhetoric that envelops this discussion and deal with the facts, deal with the reality.”

What about some of those basic alterations in the nation’s tax structure which Republicans insist upon? “I’m not opposed to the flat tax. I think that would be the way to simplify things considerably. I support tax cuts. I’m a New Democrat. I don’t want to pay any more than I have to pay.” The congressman adds a proviso, it should be said, that positions him against immediate tax cuts — namely, that obligations to Social Security and Medicare, as well as payments on the national debt (currently standing at $2.5 trillion), preclude any across-the-board reductions now.

Ford does, however, join in the Republican call for elimination of the so-called marriage tax, and he agrees that businesses are entitled to a 20 percent flat-rate tax credit for research and development. He also called for a presidentially appointed national commission to study revisions in the tax code.

Ford credits President Clinton with pragmatic policies that have resulted in the nation’s current sustained economic boom. But he does not shrink from criticism of the president, whether during last year’s Monicagate affair or with his current call for Clinton to make “a stronger, more forceful, more articulate case” for the actions in Kosovo.

Much of the congressman’s political sea change (if that is what it is) would seem attributable to his interest in making a statewide race — possibly as soon as 2000, against incumbent Republican Senator Bill Frist. Certainly, his recent travels seem designed to draw the attention of party activists and donors statewide.

Why else would a Memphis-area congressman make a point of touring the new Tennessee Titans’ stadium — now nearing completion in Nashville — as Ford did on Monday and then offer a defense of the team and its host city to an audience in his home city, still peevish about being so badly upstaged on the sports front?

“Let me remind you, Nashville went out and bought them a team. We shouldn’t be angry with them,” Ford told the Rotarians, arguably attempting to elevate himself above parochial jealousies and intra-state rivalries.

It may be that Ford — whose financial cupboard is bare just now and whose safe congressional seat is a fair launching pad in itself — means only to ensure that he keeps being talked about.

His new rhetoric won’t hurt in that regard.

Right to left: Back when Don Sundquist represented Tennessee’s mixed suburban-rural 7th District, his ratings with various conservative activist groups, based on the votes he cast, were unequalled among the state’s congressional delegation. And his first term as governor — during which he cut spending, eliminated agencies, and pioneered in welfare reform — did nothing to offset the image of Sundquist as a conservative’s conservative.

Above all, Sundquist’s well-documented resistance to new taxes kept him firmly positioned to the right of center.

All of that has changed in Sundquist’s second gubernatorial term with the advent of a tax-reform package aimed at shoring up the state’s dwindling revenues from business taxes. As the governor pointed out during his State of the State address in February and has been repeating ever since, these revenues have precipitately declined during the very years when Tennessee has been experiencing an economic boom.

Hence, Sundquist’s proposal to close loopholes that have allowed various professional offices, as well as the so-called limited liability corporations, to avoid taxation altogether. (The phenomenon whereby a traditional corporation switches to LLC status continues to gather momentum; one prominent local business, WREG-TV has only recently transformed itself into an LLC.)

As Sundquist has further noted, the best way to keep businesses from beating the system is to impose a tax on payrolls, since medical and legal partnerships and architectural or engineering firms, among others, tend to allocate much or all of their profit as compensation for employees or partners. It is the governor’s proposed payroll tax that has drawn the most heat from organized business lobbies and other constituent groups that formerly supported him.

In the process of putting forth his tax plan — which includes his call for an end to the sales tax on grocery food — Sundquist has not only angered large portions of his Republican base, he has acquired an increasing number of allies among Democrats and from the ranks of citizens’ activist groups that formerly kept their distance.

Appearing for a meeting of the American Association of Retired Persons at Union Avenue Baptist Church last week, Sundquist showed no signs of backing off a tax plan that continues to lose ground in a special legislative session that may end up applying only a Band-Aid remedy to the state’s revenue problems.

Accompanied by four Democratic legislators and only one Republican, Sundquist rhetorically addressed the state’s businesses, throwing down the gauntlet anew. “I’m telling you as a businessman,” said former advertising man Sundquist. “Businesses have to do their part. Business ought to join us, and they ought to join us next week.” The current tax system is regressive and “not fair” to the state’s indigent population and to working people, he said.

To recent news reports in Memphis and Nashville that his plan was a dead number, Sundquist retorted, “It’s not dead, and I’m not giving up.” To those legislators who have sought to temporize and put off major decisions until 2000 or until another special session might be called later this year, the governor responded, “We can’t wait until November. The cows are out of the barn by November. … Next year is an election year. How many people are going to wait to take on taxes in an election year? We must act now!”

Although the governor himself continues to forswear the possibility of a state income tax, he has indirectly spurred renewed interest in such a tax, even — or maybe especially — among Republicans who had been hard-sells on the concept, proposed early in the current decade by former Governor Ned Ray McWherter, a Democrat, and by such Republicans as Lewis Donelson and the late State Senator Leonard Dunavant, both of Memphis.

Three legislators have now introduced income-tax legislation, and at a town meeting in Bartlett last weekend, State Rep. Tre Hargett, a Republican who campaigned against the income tax in 1996 and 1998, owned up to a new interest in the idea. “It’s fair to say that I and many of my colleagues are looking at the income tax for the first time,” Hargett said.

For whatever changes eventually bear fruit, among Democrats or Republicans, Don Sundquist, unpredictably, will have served as Johnny Appleseed.

Afterthoughts and Add-Ons

Three Gridiron Show writers unmentioned in last week’s item about this weekend’s satirical revue at the New Daisy are Terry Reeves, Leigh Goodwin, and Mark Corley. The show’s producers urge prospective attendees of Saturday night’s dinner show finale ($65 a head) to book reservations ahead with Dabney Roberts at 323-8338.

As the Romans put it, ars longa, vita brevis (Art is long; life is short.) The brevity part of that would seem to apply also to affairs of state. Word comes that the romance between city councilman Tom Marshall and mayoral aide Carey Hoffman, cited last week as the subject of a Gridiron skit, is no more. Ah well, sic transit Gloria. (You do know Gloria, don’t you, Tom? No? Well, Tom — Gloria. Gloria — Tom.)

Much as any columnist enjoys being enjoyed, I must demur somewhat at the glee expressed by two readers concerning my recent description of Trustee (and prospective county mayoral candidate) Bob Patterson as “pleasantly nerdish.” The word “nerd” has undergone something of a metamorphosis in recent years. It formerly had some of the meaning conveyed by the onomatopoeic term “dork”; these days, however, it tends to be a much more subject-friendly term, indicating a technocratic fixation on one’s duties (as in the frequently heard “computer nerd”). It is in the latter sense, of course, that the amiable, nose-to-the-grindstone Patterson was described.

Yvonne Acey is the county Election Commission member who should have been mentioned in an item two weeks ago about a reshuffling of the commission’s membership. The name of her husband, David Acey, crept in via my subconscious recall of our long former association as colleagues at the University of Memphis.

And Rodney Herenton, not Duke, is the mayoral son who works at the Morgan Keegan brokerage.

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